Then-owner George Argyros stared at Roger Jongewaard, the chief talent scout, who recommended the club draft Ken Griffey Jr. ahead of Argyros’ preference, a pitcher named Mike Harkey.
“OK,” said Argyros, irked, “but if this doesn’t work, it’s your ass.”
Twenty-six years later, at another pivot point in franchise history, I asked general manager Jack Zduriencik Thursday if he heard something similar from Mariners ownership in the last couple of weeks regarding the signing of Robinson Cano.
“They didn’t say it like that,” Zduriencik said, then he started to smile. “But I knew it. Isn’t it obvious? I mean, let’s be real.”
As laughter erupted from a circle of reporters surrounding him, Zduriencik’s suggestion was apt. Let’s be real:
The signing of Cano for $240 million is a bet of the farm, the orchards, the lake and the vast stores of the franchise’s essence — bobbleheads — in the club’s warehouses. All in.
The move is against everything Howard Lincoln has stood for in his 14-year tenure as CEO. The move is against everything that baseball’s conventional wisdom says about long-term contracts to mid-career stars. The move is against everything a disgruntled fan base has come to expect from a franchise now branded nationally as dysfunctional.
In a word: Astounding.
Even though Seattle fans have had more than a week to digest the deal, the magnitude hit home Thursday when Cano and his his well-dressed coterie of agents, family and, of course, rap mogul Jay Z The Deuce (“I told him,” said Zduriencik, “that I was J. Z. before he was Jay Z”) gathered in the Safeco Field interview room for introductions.
The deal really happened.
The Mariners outbid the Yankees — by three years and about $65 million — for one of their own, a superb hitter and second baseman and the best player on the free agent market this winter.
For Lincoln and the rest of ownership, for Zduriencik and for Cano, it’s their asses.
Even Cano and his posse had a hard time believing it. By the count of the Cano’s primary negotiator, Brodie Van Wegenen, some or all of the entourage made four trips from New York to Seattle in 12 days to see if the place and the people were real, or a media fiction. They tasted the water, smelled the air and even had cake — birthday cake, because it was Jay-Z’s birthday — and lived to tell about it.
They also checked the financial records.
Turns out the Mariners’ ownership was loaded. Since 1992, they always have been loaded. Armed with six weeks of good baseball in 18 years, they muscled a beautiful stadium out of the city, county and state. Despite four only postseason appearances in 37 years, none including a World Series, they managed to make money every year, purchase their own regional sports network and withstand withering, published criticism from from former employees who said, essentially, that they and the fans were Margaret Dumont in a Marx Brothers movie rich with double-talk from the bosses.
Wow, the agents must have said. What a scam. Where do we sign?
They first had to winnow the field of suitors. Van Wegenen said there were five contenders, then three, and finally, the Mariners, because they were the ones to go from seven to 10.
“I think length was very important,” Zduriencik said. “You could have stopped at a seventh year and probably wouldn’t have got it done. You could have gone to eight and probably wouldn’t have got it done. The fact the ownership allowed us to go to 10 years was a big, big factor.”
Duration was manageable because few of the owners and executives are likely be around when the deal turns south at the midpoint. For the Mariners, they were fairly candid about it. On the front end, the Mariners probably have a slight bargain for Cano’s services. On the back end, when Cano will have a hard time bending over, the deal is hugely in favor of the player.
But by then, judging by the business history of baseball, there will be worse deals. And Cano will be the problem of a new generation.
For the past five years under Zduriencik, the Mariners have attempted to do baseball the right way — investing in scouting and the minor league system, nurturing young players whose contracts remain under club control. The smart way, at least the way Mariners did it, provided squat in the area of baseball results.
So they decided to exercise the only available option — go stupid. It is, after all, the American way to buy one’s way out of trouble. And nothing is more American than baseball.
For his part, Cano’s research included a phone call to Felix Hernandez, the Mariners’ homegrown, superstar pitcher. Unsurprisingly, Hernandez, who harbors a fantasy of someday pitching in the postseason, put on his straw hat and sold Cano in the manner of Dr. Harold Hill in “The Music Man.”
“He told me what was great about this organization,” Cano said. “He said they’re going to make you feel like family. They’ll take care of you. And that played a big role in my situation. You always want to be with people that treat you right.”
For the Mariners fan who has always been puzzled by the affection Hernandez has had the for the woebegone baseball team, well, now there a second player over which to puzzle. But it isn’t all that mysterious, considering that almost half a billion dollars in combined contract valuess will purchase a fair amount of loyalty.
For Zduriencik, the deal is the culmination of his plan to ask ownership to go for it once he had the young players in place for contention. Emerging from a a 91-loss season, he somehow deduced that this was the moment.
“We had elite pitching,” Zduriencik said. “We didn’t have an elite player on the field.”
Now he has both. And a backside in the breeze.
Lo and behold, he also has a team that went from moribund to interesting. Holy Percy Harvin, Clint Dempsey and Chris Petersen.
-Art Thiel, Sports Press Northwest
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